Steelers Report Card for MNF Win over Bengals: Sometimes Letter Grades Are Just Unimportant….

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who got a soberly brutal reminder that often times things like letter grades mean little in real life, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the MNF win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Antonio Brown, Kevin Minter, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers Bengals Monday Night Football, Steelers Bengals MNF,

Antonio Brown dodges Kevin Minter in the 4th quater of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger’s final 24 for 40 for 2 touchdowns and 1 interception were pretty impressive on the night he passed the 50,000 yards mark. Yet Road Roethlisberger was in evidence early, and Ben struggled during the first half, as would be expected given the severity of Ryan Shazier’s injury. All things considered, Ben Roethlisberger had a very good night. Grade: B+

Running Backs
The Cincinnati Bengals limited Le’Veon Bell on the ground during much of the first half, but Le’Veon Bell did his damage through the air, and ultimately led the team in receptions, and piling up a respectable 76 yards on the ground. His heads up touchdown is what got Pittsburgh back in the game. James Conners played for a series and looked good on two runs, but got mauled on the third. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2017 season

Tight Ends
Jesse James caught one of two passes thrown his way and Xavier Grimble caught a 9 yard pass to set up a 4th and short on the Steelers 2nd field goal drive. The tight ends have been playing solid football, but neither man is Vance McDonald’s equivalent when it comes to blocking. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown arrived at Paul Brown Stadium without knowing whether he would start, but his toe injury wasn’t very apparent. William Jackson kept Brown in check during the first game, but Brown did his damage in the rematch, catching 8 passes for 101 yards and holding onto a touchdown in the face of a brutal hit. Martavis Bryant continues to emerge as a key possession-receiver type role, while JuJu Smith-Schuster caught four passes. Eli Rogers caught 1 of two passes thrown his way.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Steelers offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage early in the game in terms of both run blocking and pass blocking. However, the second half was a different story as Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw, and Bell and Conner had room to run. Grade: B

Defensive Line
The Steelers defensive line has been a shining star of excellence so far this season, but the game at Paul Brown Stadium was not their finest hour. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly in the first half as their running backs averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and Andy Dalton had all day to throw. The line tightened things up somewhat in the first half, but with Shazier gone this unit is going to need to do even more. Grade: C

Bud Dupree, Andy Dalton, Stephon Tuitt, Steelers vs Bengals, Bud Dupree sack Dalton

Bud Dupree sacks Andy Dalton on 3rd down in Bengals final drive of the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Linebackers
Everyone knew going into the game that Ryan Shazier was the team’s best linebacker, but his loss highlights just how much he meant. In Shazier’s absence Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort struggled to stop running backs when they reached the second level.  Vince Williams got a sack on the Bengals 1st key series in the 4th quarter and Bud Dupree finished the last one with a sack, although Dupree let go of Dalton too early and it nearly cost the team. Grade: C+

Secondary
Robert Golden struggled in Mike Mitchell’s absence, and Coty Sensabaugh was so bad that the coaches replaced him with Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton got burn badly on a long touchdown that was called back, but his name wasn’t mentioned much for the rest of the night which is good, considering he was covering A.J. Green. Artie Burns deflected two passes and didn’t give up a long TD, while Sean Davis had seven tackles. The secondary struggled mightily early on but the Dalton failed to convert third downs in the second half. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Martavis Bryant continues to do well as a kick returner as his 96 yard return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty shows. Eli Rogers was back on punt return duty, and also had a nice return negated by a touchdown. The Steelers coverage was solid. And Chris Boswell was a perfect 3 for 3 including yet another game winner at the buzzer. Grade: B

Chris Boswell, Steelers vs Bengals

Chris Boswell kicking the winning field goal as time expires in the Steelers MNF win over the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Coaching
IT would be easy to criticize the Steelers offense and defense for their sloppy first half performances and attempt to point the finger at the coaches as Colin Cowherd did.

  • But the team was clearly shaken by Shazier’s injury, as it should have been.

Todd Haley’s offense did what it needed to do in the second half, putting two touchdowns on the board and it got into position for Chris Boswell to kick field goals to close both halves. The Steelers defense looked lost after Shazier went down but Keith Butler‘s s boys made the necessary adjustments to hold the Bengals to 3 points in the second half.

And finally, that brings us to Mike Tomlin. Nothing tests leadership like a crisis, and the Steelers were in crisis mode Monday Night against the Bengals. Mike Tomlin kept his team on an even keel, and had the courage to make a substitution at cornerback which probably helped and certainly didn’t hurt. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
During the second half, Bud Dupree got a hold of Andy Dalton but let go before he got him down, Dalton slipped away, but for a moment the entire Steelers defense seemed to lose the quarterback.

Such a situation could have had devastating consequences, were it not for the rookie linebacker who never lost track of Dalton, perused him and ultimately forced him to throw the ball away and for that T.J. Watt wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win against the Bengals.

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Ryan Shazier’s Spinal Contusion Sobers Reaction to Steelers 23-20 Win over Bengals

The Steelers 23-20 Monday Night Football win over the Cincinnati Bengals will spark debates and discussions for a long time. Unfortunately, this is one game that people will remember for the wrong reasons.

  • Football is a contact sport, and an often a brutal one.

On one level, there’s often something beautiful about this, as athleticism, precision, strategy, teamwork and pure force combine to form the ultimate test of wills. If the movie Concussion is accurate, even Dr. Bennet Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso concurs.

  • Last Christmas, the Steelers and Ravens treated the world to an example of the NFL at its best.
  • On Monday Night Football, the Steelers and the Bengals treated the world to an example of the NFL at its worst.

One can argue whether this was simply a hard hitting game or a dirty game. A little bit of both is true, and both teams bear responsibility. Regardless, Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion shows just how a big of a risk players take and how high of a toll the game extracts.

It’s hard, and it some lights feels almost inappropriate to focus on football in a context like this, but solider on we will.

George Lloka, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Bengals

George Lloka drills Antonio Brown as he scores the Steelers 2nd touchdown in a brutal game against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Rocky III Reenacted on the Gridiron

A good friend of mine and founding member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Buenos Aires sees himself as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior, and I’ve often joked  that the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Miracle On Ice equals Rocky IV in real life.

  • If that’s the case then the Steelers first half vs the Bengals provided the football equivalent of Rocky III.

If you’ll remember, in the movie right before the first fight, Clubber Lang takes out Micky, Rocky fights anyway but is clearly out of sorts and gets KOed as a result. That pretty much sums up the Steelers first half against the Bengals.

To be sure, Road Ben Roethlisberger started the game for the Steelers, but Ryan Shazier got hurt 3 plays after Ben’s first interception.

After that, the next 24 and a half minutes belonged to the Cincinnati Bengals. You wouldn’t exaggerate if you argued that the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t looked as aimless since the dark days of the 1998 and 1999 late season melt downs under Bill Cowher.

  • Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt got dominated at the line of scrimmage, leading to…
  • Tyler Matakevich aka, “Dirty Red,” looking clearly out of his depth ,as Giovani Bernard and Joe Mixon ran up the middle at will
  • Coty Sensabaugh proved that the long touchdowns he’s given up since taking over for Joe Haden were no fluke

Indeed, Coty Sensabaugh looked to be playing the role of a tormented child struggling to catch a bar of ice cream tossed between Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in cruel game of keep away.

Steelers vs Bengals, A.J. Green, Robert Golden, Coty Sensabaugh

A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass as Robert Golden and Coty Sensabaugh can do little more than watch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The Steelers offense was just as unfocused. Martavis Bryant dropped another catchable long bomb, Antonio Brown dropped a would-be touchdown pass, Le’Veon Bell couldn’t find room to run, the offensive line gave up a sack on 3rd down, and Ben Roethlisberger threw several near interceptions.

When Andy Dalton connected with A.J. Green for their second touchdown of the night with 0:45 left in the first half, it looked as if both a blowout and a shut out were in the making.

Comeuppance for Tomlin Clock Management Critics

Steel Curtain Rising has already challenged the conventional wisdom by complementing Mike Tomlin’s clock management skills, but the Bengals game adds new fuel to the fire.

After getting torched on the road during a cold, rainy Monday for another touchdown on a night after you’ve lost your most dynamic player and your down by 3 scores, taking a knee when you’ve got 26 seconds left in the half must be appealing head coach.

  • As long as that head coach isn’t Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin ordered his offense to go for it, and a heads up play by Le’Veon Bell, combined by a foolish pass interference penalty by the Bengals allowed the Steelers to get into position for Chris Boswell to knock in a 30 yard field goal.

17-3 at the half isn’t pretty, but it sure beats 17-0.

Steelers Rally, Show Resiliency in 2nd Half

It would be easy to look at the Steelers offense’s 17 point second half and credit them for the comeback. And the offense did play much better in the final 30 minutes which were highlighted by:

  • An offensive line protected Ben Roethlisberger well an opened holes for Bell and James Conner
  • Le’Veon Bell’s heads up, play to the whistle touchdown while Cincinnati snoozed
  • A pass interference call set drawn by Martavis Bryant that set up Chris Boswell’s first field goal
  • An incredibly tough touchdown catch by Antonio Brown as he got KOed by George Lloka

The real story of the second half, however, was the Steelers defense. The unit began the night without Joe Haden and Mike Mitchell, lost Ryan Shazier 3 plays into the night, and lost Tyler Matakevich a few plays into the 3rd quarter, leaving L.J. Fort as their last healthy reserve linebacker.

Andy Dalton, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Bengals, Vince Williams sack Andy Dalton

Vince Williams sack of Andy Dalton keyed the Steelers most important defensive stand of the night. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Having seen enough of Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler started the rookie Cam Sutton in the second half. At one point it looked like a preseason game as Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo were also seen on the field along with Fort and Sutton.

  • Despite that, the Steelers defense persevered as the Bengals fell apart, particularly on third downs.

After the Steelers pulled to within a touchdown, Vince Williams spearheaded the key defensive series as he charged untouched on 1st down to sack Andy Dalton. That led to a three and out, which in turn set up the Steelers touchdown drive.

  • Bud Dupree closed the night with another sack of Dalton, forcing a punt with 2:48 remaining.

For those looking to complain about clock management, look no further than Tim Lewis who allowed the Steelers to burn up over 2 minutes of time before using his time outs. By the time Chris Boswell was kicking the game winner, time had expired.

A Word about JuJu

The NFL has suspended Steelers rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster for his hit on Vontaze Burfict. Looking at the replay, yours truly concurs with those who argue that JuJu’s hit, while illegal, wasn’t intentional.

  • But his standing and gloating over Burfict is unacceptable and appalling.

Knowing what we now know about CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we can argue about whether the NFL’s defenseless receiver, no helmet to helmet hit and concussion protocol amount to real protections for players or mere window dressing.

That’s besides the point. This isn’t 1989 when ESPN PrimeTime would lead with footage of Thomas Everett knocking out  Al Toon out with a concussion followed by Greg Lloyd by giving Toon a WWE style three count. JuJu Smith-Schuster should know better, and for that alone he’s earned his suspension.

Nice that Steelers Won, But….

This was another game that shouldn’t have been close on paper but that went down to the wire. The Steelers have been in several of these, yet they keep managing to come out on top.

While it’s nice that the Steelers won, seeing Ryan Shazier carted out on the back board with his hands covering his face casts a pall over everything and reminds us that the most important outcome of this game has nothing to do with the score.

Get well soon Ryan, our thoughts and prayers are yours.

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Steelers-Bengals Game Ball, Ryan Shazier Support Poll

Honestly, after a game in which the ESPN Deportes of Raul Allegre thought to bring up the infamous Redskins-Eagles “Body Bag” game putting up a game ball poll doesn’t seem right. Seeing Ryan Shazier lying there motionless, as the medical crew got the backboard was simply heart rendering.

For a moment there in the shower I thought to  throw up the poll and simply leave Ryan Shazier’s name on it, but that doesn’t do justice to this situation, although Ryan Shazier’s injury is all that is on anyone’s mind this morning in

Ryan Shazier, Ryan Shazier spinal contusion, Steelers vs Bengals

Steelers Ryan Shazier awaits the medical team after suffering a spine contusion against the Bengals. Photo Credit: Frank Victores, AP via PennLive.com

With that acknowledged, we are going to put Ryan Shazier on the ballot, and we ask you, in addition to voting for him, to offer your thoughts and prayers. Here’s how the rest of the ballot shapes up:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 12-05-2017 09:37:27
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Poll Results:
Which Steelers Deserve Game Balls for the Win over the Bengals (multiple votes allowed)

We’ve kept the ballot short this morning, and that’s not simply out of respect for Shazier, situation.

The blunt reality of the situation is that the Steelers didn’t play good football last night. Watching the first half unfold called to mind Apollo Creed’s words to Rocky Balboa in Rocky III when conceded that knowing that Micky was dying had to have messed with his head, but he nonetheless scolded Rocky.

Le’Veon Bell gets the first slot on the ballot, as Bell had a tough night running, but remained patient, played to the whistle and was clearly a difference maker for the Steelers. Antonio Brown gets second billing. Antnio Brown entered the day listed as “questionable” because of a toe injury, and while he had a couple of slip ups early on, Brown rallied and again was a difference maker for the Steelers.

  • Ben Roethlsiberger was in the first half last night, and his erratic play began before any injuries took place.

But like his teammates, Ben Roethlisberger bounced back in the second half, and led the Steelers to 20 point rally which ultimately was enough for the win.

Martavis Bryant had another game in which he helped convert several critical downs, although he did have a drop on a long ball that he should have caught. Chris Boswell gets the nod for knocking in his third field goal at the buzzer.

  • On defense, there’s slim pickings.

The Steelers defense began the game without two starters, Mike Mitchell and Joe Haden, and losing Shazier created a gaping hole in the middle of the field. At one point it seemed like a preseason game as Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, Cam Sutton, and Arthur Moats all seemed to be in on the field at once.

  • Perhaps that’s memory playing tricks, but it was that kind of night for the Steelers.

With that said, both Bud Dupree and Vince Williams came up with sacks in the 2nd half, and both of those were difference makers so they make the ballot.

Write in Votes Both Allowed and Encouraged

Remember, this isn’t my poll it is your poll. If you think that say, Sean Davis, James Conner or perhaps David DeCastro or another lineman did enough to stand out and deserves a vote, please write their name in.

Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case. The Steelers Monday Night Football game over the Bengals ended at 1:30 am here in Buenos Aires, so please click here for our full analysis.

 

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Sisyphean Steelers Secondary Rebuild Underlined by Coty Sensabaugh Promotion, Phillips Trade

The Steelers preseason winning effort over the Atlanta Falcons didn’t come until after Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub and third-stringer Matt Simms carved up the Steelers secondary. On the Wednesday after the game, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert responded by:

Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers secondary Rebuild

Coty Sensabaugh practices during the off season at Steelers South Side facility. Photo Credit: Steelers.com via Steel City Underground

Coincidence? Perhaps, but probably not. No, these moves are likely the latest in what can only be described as a Sisyphean Steelers secondary rebuild. “Sisyphean”for those of you who’re rusty on your Greek Mythology, referse to the plight of Sisyphus who was condemned for all eternity to roll a bolder up hill, only to have it get away from him halfway up, so that he could start again.

On has to get the feeling that Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake can identify.

Steelers Secondary Rebuild Stuck in Second Gear

When the Steelers started training camp, building depth in the secondary in general, and at cornerback in particular were a key need for the team. On paper, things looked promising. For starters, the Steelers had bodies, in contrast to previous trips to St. Vincents.

Artie Burns and Sean Davis had come into their own during the second half of 2016, and Mike Mitchell had continued with another year of solid play. They’d added Coty Sensabaugh , word was William Gay was looking better than he had at the end of 2016, and Senquez Golson was also back.

A month later, finds Senquez Golson injured, again, joined by Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, who’ve largely been kept on the sidelines during training camp and preseason. The leaves the Steelers shuffling the deck again at cornerback, much as they did in 2015 when they traded for Brandon Boykin and claimed Ross Cockrell off of waivers.

  • Whatever else you can say, you can’t blame Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for lack of trying.

As recently as two years ago, you could argue that Pittsburgh was trying to rebuild the secondary on the cheap, as the Steelers brain trust ignored pleas from fans and the press to draft a cornerback early in the 2012, 2013, and 2014 NFL Draft. Indeed, in 2014 Carnell Lake shoed away questions about waiting so long to draft a corner by talking up Antwon Blake.

Cortez Allen, Torrey Smith, Steelers secondary rebuild

Images like this remind us why the Steelers once counted on Cortez Allen. Photo Credit: Alchetron

For the record, the Steelers had thought they had something in Cortez Allen and had invested heavily in drafting Shamarko Thomas as an eventual starter at safety. Both of those moves count as epic failures. But that was then.

  • Since 2014, the Steelers have drafted five defensive backs and used premium picks to draft all four of them.

Despite all of those moves, the Steelers still find themselves turning over loose stones hoping to uncover a defensive back or two who can help bring home Lombardi Number 7.

While that might not be listed as Standard Operating Procedure in the manual of a team that fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, fans can take heart in the fact that the Steelers track record is pretty solid here.

Antown Blake wasn’t starting material, but he delivered good value as a waiver wire pickup. And while Ross Cockrell’s demotion is disappointing (and as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell indicates, probably permanent), the Steelers secondary was better with him starting in 2016 than it had been with Blake starting in 2015.

So the trajectory of the Steelers Secondary Rebuild remains upward. But unlike Sisyphus, the Steelers need to find a way to keep the ball rolling until they reach the mountain top. Because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have an eternity to wait.

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Senquez Golson Reportedly Carted off Field Sunday at Steelers Training Camp

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson has had a bad break or two during his first two-plus years with the team.

Unfortunately, you may have to make that three.

According to several Steelers beat writers–including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac–Golson was carted off the field with an apparent foot, ankle, or hamstring injury during the team’s first practice in pads on Sunday afternoon.

“Here’s a shocker: CB Senquez Golson carted from field with some type of foot/ankle injury on first day in pads,” Dulac Tweeted around 5:30 p.m. Sunday evening. 

As of this writing, there is no official word on Golson’s condition. But regardless of the extent of the injury, this has to further erode the confidence of not only the player, but that of the coaches in him, coaches who once thought so highly of Golson’s skills after selecting him out of Ole Miss in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, he had the inside track on starting in the slot position in his rookie season.

But Golson’s rookie season was snuffed out before training camp even began, thanks to a shoulder injury that required surgery and placed him on the Injured Reserve list.

A year ago, during the first Monday of training camp, Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury–a mid-foot sprain–that led to a second surgery, another stint on IR and, ultimately forced him to miss all of his second campaign.

Since selecting Golson two years ago, the Steelers have drafted Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and signed veteran corner Coty Sensabaugh as a free-agent this past spring.

The odds seemed stacked against Golson as he laced up his pads and took the field at St. Vincent College Sunday

Photo credit: Steelers.com

afternoon.

But after suffering his third injury in the past three summers, the odds are that Senquez Golson may wind up as nothing but a foot-note in Steelers history.

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Don’t Sweat Senquez Golson’s Injury History. He Can Still Contribute to Steelers 2017 Secondary

It must be a helpless feeling to be a young NFL player and have to sit out two-straight years with injuries. As former Houston Oilers head coach and Chuck Noll nemesis Jerry Glanville once argued, the NFL stands for “Not For Long.”

There are other sayings, such as “You can’t make the club in the tub” but they all describe the harsh realities of trying to make it in the NFL when you’re physically unable to show what you can do. And it’s possible Senquez Golson, the third-year corner out of Ole Mississippi who the Steelers selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, has heard them all by now.

Senquez Golson, Steelers 2017 OTAs, Steelers 2017 Secondary, Senquez Golson injury

Senquez Golson @ Steelers OTAs. Photo credit: 247sports.com

Senquez Golson arrived to Pittsburgh two seasons ago and, before even taking his first training camp rep, was being counted on heavily by the Steelers coaching staff to come right in and assume the role as the starting slot corner.

Unfortunately for Senquez Golson, he never did get to take that one training camp rep in his rookie year, as an offseason shoulder injury ultimately required surgery and shelved him for the all of 2015.

  • Fast-forward to last summer around this time; expectations were still high for Golson to boost a struggling Steelers secondary.

While the more cynical segment in Steelers Nation (OK, it was this site) wondered aloud if Senquez Golson might not end up as this generation’s Kris Farris,  as head coach Mike Tomlin and his staff were clearly counting on incorporating Golson into the Steelers defensive backfield heading into 2016. But while Senquez Golson did participate in training camp last season, it amounted to the proverbial cup of coffee, as he suffered a foot injury barely a week after reporting to Latrobe, Pa.

Although the Steelers kept Golson on their 53 man roster at the start of the season with hope that he might some time in November, Pittsburgh placed Senquez Golson on Injured Reserve and missed his second straight campaign.

That’s Golson’s story.

Steelers Secondary has Moved on in Golson’s Absence

The story of the Steelers secondary while Golson has sat out two years in a row has been many more draft picks added to the mix–including cornerback Artie Burns (first round) and safety Sean Davis (second round) last year; and Cameron Sutton (third round) and Brian Allen (fifth round) this past draft.

The story of the secondary has also been improvement, as Artie Burns and Sean Davis eventually assumed starting roles as the 2016 campaign rolled along and helped a passing defense improve to 16th in the NFL after finishing 30th one season earlier.

Sean Davis, Chris Conely, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Davis lays in the wood on Chris Conley during the Steelers playoff win over the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Regarding Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, like with most new draft picks, optimism has abounded this offseason, especially after both players made decent showings in rookie camp, minicamp and OTAs.

Yes, it must be quite disconcerting for a young player to have to sit on the sidelines, while other youngsters playing the same position are either now producing in the NFL or are drawing praise from their coaches and even the fans.

  • What might be even more troubling for Golson is that his bosses — especially general manager Kevin Colbert–may be ready to move on.

“Through no fault of his own, he has been injured two years in a row,” Colbert told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette in a story published on May 24.“And in all honesty, I worry about a defensive back coming off a foot injury because you don’t know what he’s going to be like and we won’t know until we get into OTA’s and mini-camps and things of that nature.”

Not the greatest vote of confidence from a man whose opinion counts more than anyone’s except for maybe Mike Tomlin’s.

But if Senquez Golson is indeed healthy, the opportunity is certainly there for him to become a factor in the secondary.

How Senquez Golson Can Contribute in 2017

Yes, Ross Cockrell appears to have the corner spot opposite Burns locked down. Yes, William Gay is still around as the wily old veteran, while journeyman Coty Sensabaugh was added to the mix as a free agent this offseason.

However, despite starting 15 games–including many at the slot position–it was believed Gay’s play began to slip as the 2016 campaign drew to a close. As for Coty Sensabaugh, after five years in the league with three different teams, what you’ve seen from his so far is probably what you’re going to get moving forward.

In other words, those veterans don’t have upside, whereas Senquez Golson, who came to the pros after a decorated college career at Mississippi that included 10 interceptions and being voted a first-team All-American in his senior season, does.

It is true you make similar statements about both Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, but the difference with Senquez Golson is that, while he has missed his first two seasons, he has had the benefit of attending meetings and learning defensive coordinator Keith Butler‘s playbook and system.

  • Are mental reps in the classroom more beneficial than physical reps on the practice field?

Probably not, but having two years of knowledge should definitely put Senquez Golson on a more solid ground than the incoming class of rookies. “At this point, the only thing I’m missing is in-game experience,” Golson explained to Ed Bouchette, “I pretty much have the basics down. I don’t feel any hitch, no falloff, nothing like that.”

  • Senquez Golson later added: “Healthy, I’m still the same guy they drafted.”

If that is the case, it would certainly be premature and short-sighted for anyone to write Senquez Golson off as a potential contributor to the Steelers secondary in 2017.

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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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